The Picts have recently been invading the blogosphere. I didn’t start it, though my rant about the Pictish Arts Society has been part of it. But at about the same time Carla Nayland opened the very vexed question of Pictish matriliny at her blog, and the comments have ballooned into a very interesting exploration of just who and what the Picts were, which is something of course which we will never really be able to settle, but that’s not going to stop bloggers trying :-)
I’ve weighed in quite a lot there already, and when I found myself building another mini-essay for her comment box, I decided at the last minute to bring it here instead. Partly because I’ve dominated that too much already, partly because I think it will work better with pictures that I can’t provide there, and mostly because I want to establish a claim on some of these ideas, which I’ve been wanting to find time to write up properly for ages, in my own space on the web. Selfish, but that’s blogging for you, it’s about thinking you have something to say, isn’t it. So here goes. Let’s mark that with the traditional Pictish Beast and get down to the politics.
Carla says, you see: “There’s little doubt that the people fighting the Romans were the same people who later became called the Picts.” And this is indeed a staple of the field, but I’d have to quarrel I’m afraid. I think Picts means too many peoples. Let me explain.
There’s a huge area of what is now Scotland that Pictland is supposed to cover, in which we can dimly detect lesser political formations. At first there’s the Caledonii and Verturiones mentioned in Ammianus (if that is Ammianus, I forget), then we get a whiff of a kingdom of Argyll later on, this mysterious place Fortriu, Orkney seems to be sort of a kingdom or sub-kingdom apart…
All this could make a model like England, where there are lots of kingdoms and maybe sometimes an overking but we can still talk about the English as a lump, even if maybe not before the Viking Age. But there’s also the material culture. In the North-East, the `Picts’ build (or had built and now lived among) brochs.
In the south-west they like souterrains to store their grain in, in a way that the rest of `Pictland’ does not.
In the East and South-East they bury like the British, in long cists, except that sometimes the `Picts’ recycle symbol stones as grave-slabs, which is extremely difficult to understand given what I think the symbol stones are;
but elsewhere they either like reusing cairns, for important people presumably, or we just don’t really know what they did. Some Pictish place-names are identifiably Pictish because they are recognisably P-Celtic; but some don’t appear to be Celtic at all, and the actual script of the symbol stones, where it’s used, is Ogam imported from Ireland, and has `maqq’ instead of `mapp’ so that the language of writing may even have been Gaelic.
No way are these all the same `people’.
You just can’t talk about Pictish material culture or society the way you can talk about `Saxon’ archaeology, except where we’re dealing with art and the stones, which seem to be élite statements of some kind because they must have cost real wealth to get made. Pictland is a political construct, just like England, which is built out of smaller units; but the lost history of those units seems to be much more various than in England, and we probably need to think of Pictland in terms of something that exists as a unit only for brief periods, like Wales for example except more often than that, and at other times is a grouping for whose various inhabitants and their local cultures only outsiders from beyond the walls would use the same name.
This helps explain another question asked in Carla’s comments, about what happens to the Picts, in fact, because I think that the answer is that really, the most identifable thing about them, their stonework and sculpture, is an élite cultural manifestation that needs to be thought of as court or noble culture. Most of the so-called `Picts’ would have had precious little to do with this stuff, however distinctive it be. So when the élite changes, as it does with Cinaed mac Alpin’s takeover, even if maybe not by much, there is a sea-change in élite self-representation, the nobles may be the same people but they fairly quickly change their fashions, and the result is that we stop seeing the only thing that really identifies itself as `Pictish’ so quickly that we wonder where all the `Picts’ went. Well, they were probably still there but with nothing to identify them by. I bet that Pictish went on being spoken just as much—but then the Vikings arrived and messed up the place-name map for ever.